In March of 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his final days as leader of the Israeli opposition, met with me in his Knesset office to discuss an issue that was at the forefront of his mind. He had just won election (for a second time) as prime minister, and he was busy packing, but his thoughts were on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and on the new American president, Barack Obama.
"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told me. He described the Iranian nuclear threat as a "hinge of history" and said that the future of "Western civilization" itself depended on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
He used memorable language—language he would later deploy constantly as prime minister—to describe the threat Iran posed to Israel, to its Arab adversaries, and to the West: "You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."
Netanyahu has come to Washington as part of his re-election campaign, but his main challenge is not to convince voters on the Israeli right to stick with him on March 17th, when they go to the polls. Nor is his main challenge to give an eloquent speech—he knows how to do this. His main challenge is to provide an alternative vision to President Obama's plan for Iran. Yesterday, Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, went before 16,000 people at the annual AIPAC convention and said, "We cannot let an unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal."